One of the things I learned as a regulator was that there is an ebb and flow to things. In that case we’d get more and more proscriptive about what could and could not be done until people screamed bloody murder at which point the trend would move towards more principles-based requirements until people said, “well, that wasn’t what the rule said” and tried to get out of the principled requirement using semantics and it would reverse again.
Back and forth, back and forth it goes.
Right now we’re seeing a sort of tide shift with streaming content. One I personally hate. You want me to pay for you like you’re cable but then also make me watch a ton of ads that aren’t placed properly in your content so that it just randomly switches out mid-scene to an ad? Yeah, I’ve got a bunch of old DVDs I think I need to rewatch, thanks.
There was this big new area of exciting development with streaming at one point and all sorts of new players rose up and tried things and found their niche (love you Acorn), but now we’re in the consolidating, gotta suck every last penny out of the system stage. We’ll probably have to suffer through that for a few years until maybe some equilibrium develops or some new disruptive technology emerges to change things again.
There are rumblings that self-publishing is heading into some sort of contraction stage, too.
I think the glory days when there were more readers looking for content than writers who could provide it are long gone. That was five years ago or more, but people who got a good start then have kept acting like that’s still possible for anyone. It’s not and I think even they are finally beginning to realize that as people that were doing pretty well start to slide into obscurity.
I had a conversation two years ago with someone about self-pub and Amazon and how it all worked. Everything I told them was publicly available. Nothing was a secret. But I knew where to look. At the time, this person asked me how someone who was brand new would find that information. My answer was I didn’t know.
When I got started there was a forum that was the first place anything new was mentioned. That’s where I learned about Kobo promotions and Vellum and all sorts of other developments. And, yes, some of that moved to FB groups, but not in a great way IMO. And a lot of the inside baseball conversations just aren’t happening publicly anymore.
Because we’re now in a maturing industry in self-pub. The raft is full and the ocean is right there and no one wants to fall off the raft and drown. Which is not to say that there aren’t people helping one another or bringing others up or that that shouldn’t be happening. But if someone finds something that works for them today, they might not broadcast that fact to the world like they would have a decade ago.
Someone eventually will because there’s a whole ecosystem of people making money off of telling other authors what to do and any useful secret they find they’ll share immediately to up their clout. (This happens in one of the groups I’m in with someone who charges authors for marketing help. Of course, generally that will make that particular secret ineffective or much less effective in approximately three months’ time as everyone scrambles to get in on the latest thing.)
We also now have some very well-developed heavy-hitters in this industry. I think most of them are going to be solid going forward. They’ll get knocked sideways at some point by Amazon changes or something like that, but they’ve staked out their positions and as long as they keep delivering, they’ll be good.
What will happen is that a lot of people who didn’t make it to that steady place in time will fall off.
Maybe they keep publishing, but turn to a day job. Maybe they turn to trade pub. Maybe they quit altogether.
Some will innovate and find new ways to reach little pocket audiences. I know one author who has turned towards Kickstarter and using their own website for sales, for example.
But a lot are going to drop off in the next few years. Which, for the “easy money” types who killed it for a while there, farewell and good riddance, enjoy the next easy money wave you find to ride, wherever that may be. For the ones who always had a dream of being a successful writer and see that dream disappear, that’s gonna hurt. A lot.
Which is not to stay that you can’t still launch a successful pen name. I have a good friend who launched an incredibly successful pen name just this year after launching a different one two years ago. And another friend who launched a successful one about two years ago.
What those friends had though was the ability to write well and write quickly, the ability to hit the genres they were aiming for, the ability to package their books well for that genre, and the marketing know-how to launch those first books into the top 1000. Not a lot of authors have all those skills. Even a decade into this “self-pub revolution”.
I don’t think I have all of those to be honest.
Those friends were also writing for big genres. We too often fail to give credit to how important it is that you are writing for a big enough genre if you want to support yourself at this. Romance authors hate having this pointed out, but, hey, there are a lot more romance readers that read voraciously than there are readers who want another book like Tolstoy wrote. Doesn’t make it easier to write those books, just means those books have more of a chance to get some good sales when they are written well.
Yeah, so, maybe read up on how to succeed in a mature industry. Warning, though, that the definitions there of the shakeout we’re seeing/about to see aren’t great for this scenario, because I don’t expect consolidation, I just expect a lot of people to drop out with their books sitting there on Amazon forever not being actively promoted and with no new content being produced until probably at some point there’s a cull of books that don’t sell off of the various platforms. (Maybe. It’s electronic records so what’s the space it’s taking up, right? But still. If you’re not showing them in search indexes, why bother listing them?)
Anyway. With that cheerful thought I am going to go spend the day with my family and my dog (which I just tried to spell god, haha) up in the gorgeous Colorado mountains, because no matter where my own personal path goes in the next few years I don’t regret for one moment taking the last ten years for myself, my family, and my dog. Nor do I regret a single one of the books I’ve written or all the skills I’ve had the joy of learning.
I mentioned the other day that this had come up during the DOJ trial related to the PRH/S&S merger. This idea that a publisher invests in 10 debut authors, maybe two do really well, two or three completely bomb, and the other five or six do alright but not amazing.
This is the approach VCs use to investing as well. (At least that’s what I was told during our MBA program by some VCs that came to talk to us.) They hope for the home run, but they know that only a small percentage of their investments are going to be home runs and that they’ll lose or be disappointed or meh about the others.
Well, it occurred to me this morning that this can also apply to self-publishing, too. And maybe this is more an example of the 80/20 rule in effect. (Where 80% of performance comes from 20% of the pool, in this case, of authors.)
Let me walk you through it.
About five years ago I joined a group of authors that occasionally touch base with one another and share information or commiserate or cheer one another on.
At the time we all wrote in a common genre or at least had written in that genre. And we all had a baseline level of sales. (It was a low baseline IMO but still I barely managed to qualify at the time.)
The idea behind the original group was that we had all done well enough with self-publishing that we took it seriously and had seen some traction with our writing and that we could benefit from sharing our experiences.
The group did not turn out to be what the founder wanted it to be, but a core group of about six of us hung in there. We now write in very different genres, but we’re still there to lend support and commiserate and just touch base.
Our little core group that’s left sort of follows this same VC pattern.
Two of the members are killing it in KU in two completely different genres. One has had a history of success but is at a pivot point. One went through one of those phases where you can’t seem to write anything new but really wants to get back to it and is maybe starting to do so after a couple years of struggle. One got frustrated enough with the whole thing that they’ve focused in on their day job for now with maybe the occasional promo or work on a new book. And then there’s me who is doing okay enough to be full-time for now but not killing it.
I think our group is pretty typical for what you’d see if you took a cohort of say ten serious about it self-publishers and tracked them for five years. Some would start high or go up and stay there. Some would find their way up but not be able to sustain it. Some would putz along in the middle never going up but never dropping to nothing. Some would never quite get off the ground. And some would leave for other opportunities no matter where they were performance-wise.
And what’s really challenging is finding a way to keep going when you’re one of the 8 out of 10 that aren’t at the top.
We have this myth in self-pub that if you just work hard enough or smart enough that you can be that 2 out of 10. Anyone can do it, right? I had someone say that in another group I’m in just the other day. That anyone can be a six-figure author if they just write a well-targeted, well-branded six-book series.
Oh, right. Okay, let me just go knock that out. Be right back in…two years? When the market has shifted again and now it’s ten books I need in a series to be a six-figure author. And maybe my series is no longer well-targeted. Oh, and somewhere in there I need to either figure out what “well-branded” means or somehow find someone who knows that even though it’s hard to judge someone’s credibility when you don’t know something yourself.
Sure. Okay. Let me get right on that.
And, to be clear, that person probably wasn’t wrong. An author who can write a well-branded six-book series in six months and get it out there has a good shot at building an audience.
But most authors can’t do that.
Some absolutely can. One of the two members of my group who is killing it in KU puts out a well-written full-length novel every six weeks or so. It can be done and is done. Just not by most authors.
And not by most new authors. That friend of mine has published something like 80 novels at this point under various pen names.
So, knowing this, what do you do? If you’re one of those authors who isn’t at the top, what does knowing this do you? (Other than make you want to cry.)
It very much depends on you and what matters to you and what you want.
If you must be at the top, you must win, you either floor it and give it everything you’ve got or you go and find something that’s easier to win at. There are absolutely corporate careers where if you put your head down and do the work for a decade you will move up and be making a very good salary.
But what if you don’t have to be the winner, you just want to keep going?
For me, I have to repeatedly accept that I personally don’t want to give what it takes to be at the top (and might not even be able to if I tried) and that while some will see me as a failure because of that, that I’m getting what I need out of this and that’s what counts.
Every single time I look at a friend’s life and think, “Oh no, I would not want that life” I have to remind myself that the only person allowed to judge someone’s life is that person. They are the one who has to get up every morning and live their life and if they’re happy in that choice then it’s no business of mine that I wouldn’t want to live like them.
I also turn that around and I remind myself that I am the one that has to live my life for the next 24 hours, 7 days, 52 weeks, however many years. And it doesn’t matter what others think of the path I’ve taken, it matters how I feel about the path I’ve taken.
It’s not easy to shut out those outside voices and judgements. Society exists to make us conform to a set of standards that benefit the whole over the individual and we are wired to hear those messages.
But it’s essential to do that if you’re going to walk a path that isn’t the norm. Especially if you could walk a path that’s the norm and you’ve just chosen not to.
Anyway. Just some more random writing thoughts. I’m off to record more audio. I think I finally have things dialed in on the non-fiction side at least so will be getting two of those books out in audio soon. They’ll probably sell five copies, but you never know. And I get to learn something new while doing it, which is the part I enjoy the most. So…Onward.
I was refreshing a bunch of my AMS ads yesterday and noticed that I’d hit the $100K in ad spend milestone.
Now, a few things first. That sales number looks more impressive than it is because that’s retail price not what I receive. Also, though, that number doesn’t include all the KU page reads I had on my books before AMS started reporting KENP on the dashboard, so my direct results from AMS ads are better than this.
Also, while that number I’ve spent can seem big–and given to someone in one lump sum it would be–my total AMS ad spend is much lower than the big hitters spend. There are authors out there who probably spend $50K or more per month on AMS.
So, as with most of what I write on this blog, my target audience is those trying to get a foothold not those who already have one. So the folks spending $50K on AMS per month, I’ve got nothing for you. Same with the so amazingly wonderful writers whose books just sell without effort.
Back in the day when we still got a physical paper everyday there was a cartoon called Pluggers. That’s who this is for. The ones sort of trudging along making progress even though it seems like they’re stuck in the mud half the time.
So…Let’s see what we can learn from my experience with AMS ads. First some context.
I was lucky to run my first AMS ads back in May 2016 before they really caught on. There was a glorious period of time when all the heavy-hitters on Kboards who’d beta’ed the ads were talking about how horrible they were and I started running some ads and…they worked for me.
The beauty of not having a lot of competition. Clicks were cheap then! Ah, it was a beautiful time.
But then people started sharing their success stories. And a few really big ad courses came out on how to use AMS. And things started to shift.
At one point I had a book out on using AMS ads, that I updated once, but I pulled those books because it seemed like every time I published one of those books the good folks at Amazon would completely change the interface or the available options or remove an ad type or add an ad type and the book would become obsolete.
Since I pulled that second book they’ve added columns for orders and KENP and top of impression share and I think moved how you access half the options.
And, thank god, they also added the ability to see information for just a select time period. (To see some of the fun hoops I used to have to jump through to use AMS, you could always check out another title I pulled, Excel for Self-Publishers. Half of the items I covered in that book were workarounds for things AMS didn’t have at the time but now does, like a way to guesstimate your KENP you were getting from your ads.)
So things have changed. And that number you see in ad spend happened over a period of six years.
Which I think is the first lesson here.
DO NOT THROW A BUNCH OF MONEY AT THE WALL
I did not start out spending large amounts of money on AMS ads. In 2016 I spent a grand total of $1,143 on AMS ads.
I don’t know how to describe this, but it’s true for the titles you publish as well as advertising spend. Some just show more signs of life.
I still remember when I published my first billionaire romance short story. Copies sold before I even knew it was live. (Note, this was also back in the days of less competition when that could happen.)
I hadn’t had that happen before. That was a sign of life. It meant, lean into this. There’s promise here. (I didn’t but that’s another story. I seem to learn the hard way.)
So with AMS, every book I publish I try to run some AMS ads on. Some of those books, the ads just don’t work. I publish a weird variety of titles, some of which probably have an audience of one, me. But I give them a shot with an AMS ad just to see.
And then, if I’m seeing clicks and sales, I keep it going. I cut what didn’t work and boost what did and try to refine that ad into something that can run long-term.
So, for example, my books on Affinity Publisher, I tried targeting some self-publishing keywords, but they really didn’t work so I trimmed those out. But there were some others that did, so I kept those and have an ad or two running for a couple of the Affinity Publisher books that deliver low-level sales results.
Full disclosure here before I say this next book, I have not taken any of the other AMS ad classes or read any of the other AMS books. There was a little too much snake oil feel to things at one point so I avoid it all.
But occasionally someone will mention here or there the advice they’ve been given on AMS ads from one of those courses or books. And sometimes the advice is that you have to be willing to lose $500 bucks to master AMS. And maybe that works. But no way in hell I’m flushing $500 on ads that aren’t working. Which brings us to our next point.
AMS ads are not necessarily the best choice of ad for a book. The more in the center of a genre a book is the more I think the list-based ad options are a better choice. Things like Freebooksy or Bookbub.
But for a full-price, cold audience looking for X book on any given day, AMS ads can be great. That means someone who comes to Amazon looking for a book on X, with no intention to buy my particular book.
You want to learn Excel and not bog down in a bunch of bullshit about the history of the program and every little thing you’ll never use? I gotcha covered. Since 2017 I have been able to successfully run AMS ads on that book at full price because it meets that need of people who come to Amazon looking for an Excel book.
But some of my fiction? Not so much.
I don’t write to the center of genres. My romances are on the edge of being women’s fiction. My cozy mysteries are probably small town family sagas that happen to involve murder. My YA fantasy has a romance subplot that doesn’t appeal to fantasy romance readers. My fiction is a harder sell.
It’s part of the challenge of learning to be a writer to figure out how to hit the bullseye of a genre, and fourteen published novels in, I know it conceptually but can’t do it yet.
So it’s harder to advertise my fiction.
Early on when there wasn’t a lot of competition I could take 25 clicks to sell a book and still make a profit. Nowadays with bids where they are I need to be at 10 or even less, depending on the title and genre.
Also, in my experience, based on how I run AMS ads, the ads only run well on full-priced books. I have tried to run them on freebies or cheap books or while I was doing a promo and the ads just slowed to a crawl.
Other techniques for running the ads may have different results, but for me it has to be full-price and something that will appeal to a cold audience.
WHAT THE COMPETITION IS DOING MATTERS
When you run AMS ads (or FB ads or Bookbub click ads) you are in a blind auction against an unknown number of other participants employing unknown bidding strategies.
How they choose to set up their AMS ads is going to impact how yours perform.
What they bid, what keywords they use, how successful their books already are, how new their books are, and how new their ads are will all impact whether you win that ad slot or they do.
The more sophisticated the competition becomes about using AMS ads the more challenging they become to run profitably.
Back in the day an author mentioned how they’d bid $9 for some keywords during a launch period because that put them at the top of ad placement, but that they didn’t actually have to spend that because no one else was bidding that at the time.
Well, others thought that was a good idea and started doing the same. And when you have multiple authors using that strategy, suddenly everyone is paying really high click costs.
So in a certain sense AMS ads are not set it and forget it ads. You do have to tend them and keep an eye out for changes and then figure out how to adjust.
DON’T GET PULLED OUT OF POSITION
Which brings up another issue. It’s very easy to react to every little change. A keyword goes from performing well one day to having 20 clicks and no sales the next and it’s tempting to turn that keyword off.
But the problem is doing so can sometimes pull you out of position. In my little Excel niche this is often driven by fake clicks on the ads. And if I turn off that keyword that day whoever is behind that gets the real clicks on that keyword and those sales for as long as everyone else is away from that keyword. If it was a good one that can be a big part of your ad performance.
Same with when someone comes through with really high bids. If you try to match them and continue to dominate the space, they’ve pulled you out of a profitable little pocket.
Which is why I do monitor my ads but I try to not be too drastic about the things I do with them. Because I want to react to long-term changes in the ad landscape, but not be jerked around by every little hiccup.
(I should not here, though, that when you’ve established ads it’s much easier to hold that line than when you’re learning and trying to figure out what really does work and what really doesn’t.)
SLOW AND STEADY
Anyone who has read this blog for any length of time knows that I am fairly productive (not massively productive, but I get 300K words published a year or something like that), but I am also not driven to be at the top.
I write because I like to hang out with my dog and avoid office politics. As long as I think I can do that for another six months, I’m good.
So I do want to make a profit so I can keep going, but I don’t have to “win”.
Which means I do not spend a lot of time narrowing in and optimizing my ads. Nor do I adopt some of the strategies that probably are more successful but take more time and effort. That seems an exhausting way to live for me.
So I try to have ads that I set and forget. My biggest AMS ad at the moment is closing in on $30K in sales. My two second biggest have hit $25K in sales.
I know that there are others who run AMS ads who do the exact opposite. They wake up every day and they started a hundred new ads and burn through them like wildfire. Which works for them. And they probably make more from that strategy than I do from mine.
But I like my way because I get to set up one ad that runs for three years with some careful tending. So there is room with AMS ads to take the slow, steady, distracted approach and still make some profit. Not as big a profit probably as the optimizers, but enough of one.
Which I guess brings me to the second-to-last point. I would never have spent the amount of money I have on ads if they didn’t make me a profit. If they didn’t return more than I put out there immediately.
Self-publishing is a weird space because there are very vocal people in this industry who will make you feel like shit if you have to advertise your books to sell them.
They’ll either imply that your books aren’t good enough if you have to advertise (even though they write to a very hungry market segment and you don’t so the sales dynamics are completely different).
Or they’ll imply that you’re not a real writer or your some sort of impatient sellout if you aren’t willing to write nine books before you even think of advertising. (Actually I think I saw someone say 20 the other day and I laughed and laughed and laughed and then went and checked my AMS ads.)
That second one strikes me as the self-pub equivalent of “you should spend ten years querying agents if you want to get published” or “you shouldn’t write a novel until you have a dozen pro short story sales” that trade pub sometimes throws out there.
I would not be writing right now if I hadn’t started advertising my books, because they will not sell on their own. If I didn’t advertise the Excel books, people would happily buy Excel for Dummies and get on with their lives. If I didn’t advertise my fiction there are plenty of fiction titles out there that they would buy instead.
I am my publisher. And as a publisher I have an obligation to get my work in front of potential readers. Advertising is a very good way to do that on a daily basis. Sure, this website gives people links to my books, but they’re not just gonna stumble across it. Something has to pull people here.
Putting a book up and then thinking the world will find it is a good way to be disappointed. And being disappointed is a good way to quit something you might have actually been good at.
BUT ADVERTISING DOESN’T ALWAYS WORK
I currently have a list of sixteen titles that I wrote down where I’d run AMS ads on them at some point this year, but the ads just weren’t doing well enough and I turned them off.
I have another ten that I wrote down where the ad was okay-ish, but I wanted to redo the ad because I thought it could be better and I didn’t think tweaking the existing ad was going to cut it.
(This in addition to the twenty ads I do have running right now that I think are doing alright.)
The reality is that sometimes advertising doesn’t work for a book. Maybe it’s the cover or the blurb or something else that can be redone to make it hit better. But sometimes…a book just isn’t going to appeal. Maybe forever, maybe just right now.
And that’s tough. It sucks.
But if you write enough books you will find that some do better than others and it’s not a matter of packaging or of getting the right description, it’s just that some books don’t appeal as much as others do.
Sometimes, though, it’s a matter of having enough books for those ads to work. On the fiction side I tend to lose money on book one, make it all up with sales of book two, and then have profit from book three onward.
Well, if all you have is book one…that’s not gonna work.
Or if people don’t read through to book two or three, that’s not gonna work.
So sometimes it is a matter of getting better at your craft. Or of writing enough books to make the ads profitable.
With AMS, even though I know that pattern exists for my fiction, I still tend to want an individual book to be profitable when I advertise it. I want that ACOS number to be under 55%. But sometimes that does not happen. And I have to let go, for now, of that book.
Look, people write for all kinds of reasons. For the love, for the exploration, etc.
But sometimes they write for the money. And if you’re writing for the money, you have to let go of the ones that don’t work. Learn what you can from that experience and move on to the next.
IT ALL CHANGES
One final thought.
I’ve been writing towards publication for a little over a decade and self-publishing for about nine years at this point.
What I can say with certainty is that things will be significantly different in another ten years. I’m not quite sure how, but I’m certain they will be. Maybe that change will happen at the industry level, maybe it will happen at the national level, maybe it will be international. But overall there will be significant change.
Over the last ten years self-pub has significantly evolved. What worked for people in 2013 when I was putzing around not doing anything I should have been is not what works for people who start today.
(Heck, KU didn’t exist when I got started and that was a game-changer. If Amazon opens KU up to all authors or splits out pop lists by KU versus other or does any of a number of other things they may be forced to do to not be considered anti-competitive, that’ll be significant for many authors.)
So knowing that, I will say that the single most important skill you need to develop as a self-published author is the ability to see that things have changed and to adjust.
I can sit down with someone today and walk through the mechanics of using AMS and tell them how I approach the ads. And that may benefit them for the next year.
But if that person can’t take the higher-level principles and let got of the details, they’re going to get stuck at some point trying to rely on what used to work.
So my best advice with AMS and self-pub is to stay flexible. Build up slowly and steadily. Don’t flush money away but do take some risks to see what’s possible. Accept failure. Follow-up on success. And adapt as needed.
(Oh, and if you want to see all the books I’ve written about writing and self-publishing they’re all on this page. I tend to write them for myself to cement my knowledge, but I do think they have some valuable discussion, too. And what kind of self-publisher would I be if I didn’t at least mention that they exist?)
I’m basically moved into my new place and unpacked enough that I should be writing. Which, of course, means I turned to doing analysis instead because I can’t quite decide which idea to write next.
So what I did today was finish building an Access report I’d started that breaks out my sales for each title by platform.
I thought I’d share some observations from that in case they’re of interest to anyone else. (And to make myself feel better about “wasting my time.”)
I built the report to flag any combination of title/platform that was at least $250. So if the amount I received for that title from that platform for a lifetime is over $250, the report highlights it in green.
Now that’s a pretty low threshold, but I set it there because on the wide platforms I really don’t sell near as much as on Amazon. If I’d flagged at $1K or $5K I’d basically just be looking at Amazon sales and a handful of IngramSpark sales.
What were the results?
Total, I had 77 titles that have made me at least $250 when you add up sales across all platforms.
58 of those titles also made that amount on Amazon alone.
(Which means I have 19 titles that have made that amount either on some other platform but not Amazon, for example, one of my video titles, or that have made that amount total across all platforms but haven’t hit that level on just Amazon like some of my more recent titles.)
I have 6 titles that have hit that level on Apple. Almost exclusively fiction titles and mostly my YA fantasy series.
I have 5 titles that have hit that level on Kobo. All fiction titles and mostly my YA fantasy series.
I have 2 that have hit that level on Google. One non-fiction and one my YA fantasy series box set.
I have 1 that has hit that level on Nook. Again, my YA fantasy series box set.
I have one video title that hit that level. And 5 audio titles that have hit that level.
And I have 16 that have hit that level on IngramSpark.
None of my titles have hit that level through libraries or other smaller channels although each of those categories has crossed the $1000 mark with a small trickle of sales across a bunch of titles.
So what are the takeaways from this analysis that can be useful for something?
One, I really need to just write instead of do analysis, but we know that won’t happen anytime soon.
Two, Bookbubs help with wide sales. My YA fantasy series is the one that I’ve been able to consistently get BB promos on and it shows in the wide numbers.
Three, even Bookbubs don’t move the needle that much. Amazon is still 70% of my sales for that series.
Four, in my experience, wide promotion is a tough nut to crack. I think the Apple, Google, and IngramSpark non-fiction sales are partially due to some wide promotion I’ve done, but it’s not near where I’d want it to be given the amount spent.
Also, it’s key to understand that this is my experience only.
Until just now I’ve never tried permafree as a strategy. I’ve had fiction titles free for a brief period of time, but never kept a title there permanently. Which meant most of my wide promo for those titles was either a Bookbub or limited-time Facebook ads.
I won’t know for probably a year or so if doing list-based promo service promotions moves the needle for me in any sort of substantial way or if I can use FB ads long-term to move copies. That’s something I need to work on for the rest of the year now that I have a finished nine-book series to try it with.
Five, IngramSpark is a black hole in terms of knowing where those sales are occurring. I suspect that a lot of them still come from Amazon but can’t prove that because they don’t tell you where the sales actually occurred.
Six, just because you have revenue doesn’t mean you have profit.
One of those audio titles is my second-worst performing audio title. It still has not earned out after five years. (I had a Chirp deal on it recently so we’ll see what that does to those numbers, but it is more than possible in this business to have sales, even lots of sales, and lose money. In this case it’s from producing the audio in the first place. But if you spend more on ads than you earn back in sales, that’s not a good result either.)
Seven, for me, with the exception of two titles that do better in audio than ebook or print, Amazon still beats every other platform in terms of total sales per title. So the titles that were over $250 on Apple or Kobo, etc. were even higher on Amazon.
Now, looking at the above, it’s tempting to say, “Clearly Amazon is the biggest source of revenue, so go all in with Amazon and forget all those other platforms.”
Which is fair. I mean, despite my best efforts Amazon is still 86% of my total revenues after all this time.
But that’s also very much on me because AMS is what I do best with in terms of promo. Which feeds into Amazon’s dominance. 74% of my ad spend lifetime is on AMS ads so, yeah, it makes sense that my sales would reflect that. When you focus your efforts in a specific area that’s where you’re going to see results.
The problem is, AMS have changed over time and will continue to do so. I loved them when I first discovered them because I could finally get sales of my fiction titles. At a profit! At full price!
And I do still manage some fiction sales using AMS, but not the way I did when those ads were first ramping up.
The problem with focusing on the biggest sales platform is it’s also a brutal cage match because everyone is there and they’re all fighting for the same very limited amount of visibility.
Running AMS ads there these days often means paying $1+ per click in the U.S. market. Now, I have titles that are still profitable at that level, but not all of them. I’ve stopped running ads on some of my books there because I just can’t compete. I don’t have enough books to absorb the ad cost and I’m not squarely enough in the category to drive sales.
You can run ads without going that high. A couple months ago I backed off for a bit because I was just tired of paying Amazon that much for a bid when a lot of the cost was being driven by questionable competition. And I still got sales, but not as many.
Lower ad spend means accepting reduced sales. So you have to weigh having 2X sales at a lower profit margin versus X level of sales at a higher profit margin. You may feel better about yourself because you’re not paying as much per click, but if at the end of the day you’re no longer making enough to pay the mortgage…Well.
For me it often comes down to my current feelings about scammers and Amazon and how much I’m willing to support a flawed ecosystem. So I sort of cycle between getting in there and brawling it out and stepping back and letting everyone else beat each other up for a while.
So there’s that. My focus on AMS has driven my results.
Also, I’m not really sure that I’ve capitalized on the potential earnings on those other platforms.
With my fantasy titles, for example, I only have the one trilogy. I published it five years ago and it has slowly accumulated sales since then but until I publish a new title under that name I won’t see a big boost from that readership. They’ve already read all they can.
Which goes back to the idea of focusing your writing efforts on one name if you can do that so that you’re building one thing as opposed to me who it seems is building ten foundations at once. (But having fun doing so which is why I do it.)
I note, too, that sellthrough-wise the wider platforms look to be stronger than Amazon even if the total numbers are lower. So again, which is better, higher sellthrough at lower numbers or lower sellthrough at higher numbers?
The answer to that question comes down to the specific numbers you’re dealing with, because there’s an inflection point there where it switches over. And the inflection point is driven by the specific numbers for each platform and series of books. It’s completely individual.
Also, at the end of the day there are no clear answers on all of this. The most important thing to do is to keep going and producing more content.
I just looked at 2018 and by the end of that year I had 28 titles that had earned at least $250. So in the four years since then I’ve added almost 50 titles to that count.
Some probably existed in 2018 and just hadn’t sold enough yet, but the rest are new books I wrote since then, including 19 of the books I published last year.
It’s a slow build. Wide or not wide. Whatever you write. It’s a process of putting bricks in the wall and building step-by-step and not getting defeated when it just looks like a handful of bricks sitting in mud after all of your initial efforts. Or when you realize you built a crooked wall and now need to tear it down or repair it before you can move forward.
(And, yes, there are some people who experience this stratospheric rise with seemingly no effort involved, but they’re rare. Even the “oh it’s so easy” crew are now talking about six books in a series instead of three like when I was starting out in 2013. And that assumes you wrote a good series and packaged it properly, which I mean, what are the odds of your first six books being like that? Slim, my friends, slim.)
So you try, you fail, you adjust, you try again. And the numbers slowly go up, except for the years when they don’t. And when you come to that moment when you question all of your life choices you can look around at the world we live in, see where it’s headed, and realize that accumulating a bunch of wealth probably wasn’t going to work out well anyway and at least you had fun along the way. Haha.
Since I just had a new release I’ve been all up in Amazon’s business this week. And figured I’d mention a few things I’d run into while I was there.
First, if you publish in print they’ve added new markets for the Netherlands, Sweden, and Poland. I think the Netherlands one has been there for a bit and was actually announced but the Sweden and Poland were new to me.
I mention this because if you care about pretty-looking prices you’ll probably want to go in and update those prices. If you don’t they default to Amazon’s conversion of your USD price to that currency.
Which, I should note, also occurs with ebook prices where you don’t set the price yourself. Even if it looks pretty when you publish the book, if you want that price to stay fixed, then you need to manually change it so that it is not based on the USD price or it may adjust on you later with no notice.
(I believe. This based on going in a few times and thinking, “where did that price come from” and then realizing that the price was one that was based on my USD price and they must’ve updated their exchange rates.)
This is also a good time to note that the default exchange rate they use for some countries is not a dollar to dollar exchange rate. In India, for example, when they convert your USD price to INR they do it so that it’s much cheaper in INR than a straight conversion rate would give you.
Which, maybe that’s good in that market? Maybe it results in more sales?
For me, I like to keep it close to even across countries. So that someone pays the same here as they would elsewhere and vice versa. Only exception to that is New Zealand where I use the AUD price so price cheaper there.
So today, for example, $4.99 USD is 4.05 GBP which I would list as 3.99 GBP.
Of course, Amazon artificially caps the pricing in Canada and Australia these days if you’re at the upper end of their 70% payout range ($9.99 USD) so at that price point it’s impossible to get them equivalent anyway.
I do what I can and then I remember the serenity prayer and move on.
The other thing I wanted to mention is that I finally saw the Quality Issues Dashboard. I’d heard people mention it, but never seen it before.
This time when I logged into my account there was a little message asking if I wanted to see it. I thought, “Oh no, I have a quality issue” and clicked on the link.
Here’s where it gets absurd.
While I was re-reading the cozies I found a place where I had said “zip code” instead of “area code” and I corrected that mistake when I uploaded my new files.
The quality dashboard showed me that the issue had been resolved.
Never told me it existed in the first place, but told me it was now resolved.
Which means at some point a reader reported that error, Amazon never told me about it, I caught it myself and updated the file, and then Amazon let me see the quality dashboard and the fact that I’d addressed it.
No other quality issues showing. But who knows? Maybe I have to find and correct them and then magically Amazon will reveal to me that they were already reported two years ago? Although it doesn’t actually tell you when the issue was reported, so no way to know how long that was hiding away unbeknownst to me.
Which is why, really, it’s best to shoot an email to the author if you want an error addressed.
Although…Make sure it is an error and not just “I would like you to phrase this my way” which I have heard of authors receiving in the past.
(Also, understand that for trade-published authors it may never get fixed. And for my books published through IngramSpark, unless it’s a life-threatening error of some sort or half the book is missing, those won’t get fixed either.)
This was in fact a legit error that I was happy to correct when I saw it.
I just never knew about it until now. And when I did find it I was like, “Well, no one has pointed it out to me yet, so must not have been that big a deal to anyone.”
Except…They had, I just didn’t know.
Oh well. Better that than the “we will shut down your account if you don’t address this error that’s not an error” message some have received.
This is a question that comes up on a regular basis in writer forums. You published a book four years ago and now you’re looking at it and wondering if you should update it with what you know now.
There are four general categories of updates that I can think of.
The first is the actual content of the book. The words on the page. This is the one that comes up probably the most.
A lot of times someone’s first book is not their best book, right? Maybe they didn’t have it edited and that really shows. Or maybe they’ve learned more about story structure and they can now see flaws in that book that they didn’t notice when they initially published. And with non-fiction the material can become outdated.
This one is the most complicated to decide on. I rewrote my first novel after I’d written a million words of other material. I’ve also rewritten one of my short story series and I’ve done second editions or new versions of some of my non-fiction. I also had a second in series book where I did a light editing pass to remove filter words like “she heard” that had snuck in there when I could’ve just said, “the shriek of the banshee filled the air.”
(An example. I have never written a story involving a banshee.)
Based on that experience…
If an early title is a standalone title and you think it is just not that good and are embarrassed to have others read it, unpublish it.
If you can do a light edit, like the one I did where I removed filter words as I was reading book two in preparation for writing book three, go for it. That’s probably just the time it takes to read the book and input the edits.
If you have based your entire writing career so far on a book with a lot of issues and there’s a whole series that comes after that, you probably should rewrite it. But. It will probably take just as long to do so as it would to write a brand new novel. And it’s probably not going to sit well with book two. Your best bet may be to unpublish the entire series and just start new with a brand new series, but chances are you won’t be willing to do that.
If the material for non-fiction has become outdated then it’s down to sales. Because it will likely take you just as long to write the updated book as it did to write the original. For my AMS books it actually took almost twice as long to write the revised edition as it took to write the original and it was also about 30% longer.
So for non-fiction I either update (because I don’t want a book out there with bad information and the book sells well enough to justify it) or I unpublish because I know updating that book will take as long as writing a new one on some other topic and I’d rather do that.
Editing an existing title is usually time intensive and often for fiction the flaws that need fixed are not something that can be fixed at the sentence or paragraph level.
If a fiction title sells well, no matter how much you hate it now, don’t touch it. You may well lose the magic that makes it sell because you wrote something in a raw state and now you think you’ve learned the rules and edits may just take what’s special away. Cash your checks, read your fan mail, and never look at that book again.
Blurbs, Ad Copy, and Categories
The second category of updates is your metadata. That’s your book description, your one-liner tagline, your book categories, your subtitle. All of the things that you have to include when you list a book for sale.
These I say change as often as you want. Experiment. Often times authors don’t know what they’ve written. I’ve even seen people mistake fiction for non-fiction. And if you learn that your book is not a book about X non-fiction topic but is instead a novel that involves that topic as a theme, you should definitely update your targeting and descriptions to reflect that.
My YA fantasy I targeted early on as a romantic fantasy. Readers did not agree, and I would’ve been a fool to keep targeting readers who wanted romantic fantasy when what I’d written was an adventure fantasy with romantic elements.
Your blurb, ad copy, and categories should all work together to target the correct group of readers. Which means they all need updated when you decide to change the audience you’re trying to reach.
That leads to the next category of updates.
I firmly believe in updating your covers. There are absolutely trends in covers and you don’t want to be left behind and look stale with an old cover design. Also, your eye improves over time. You have a better feel for what sells or what doesn’t if you’re watching your competition over the years.
And sometimes a new cover brings in new readers who didn’t really jive with your old cover but do with the new one.
But…I have also wasted money and time on cover updates. And if you’re buying nice covers that can add up.
Here are my two YA fantasy covers for my first in series:
I had the first image, the girl on the horse from 2015 to 2020. And then I had the second image with the moonstone necklace from 2020 to last month.
I do think going with the new cover refreshed the series, but I ended up switching the covers back to the original cover during a promo in March because I thought the first cover better conveyed adventure fantasy with a female protagonist.
The second cover would’ve worked beautifully if I were a known author. And it did sell, but I think people had to search for more information with the second cover. I can tell fantasy from it, but not YA, female protagonist, horse, etc.
Ideally I would’ve actually moved to a third set of covers for this one, but they’re expensive and they eat up all my profits for a while each time I switch them out so I just went back to the originals for the ebook. And these covers are beyond my ability to create myself, even the one on the right that seems simpler but is not.
That leads us to the last category of changes, which is the title. For fiction, unless the book just has not sold at all, I’d personally leave the title alone. Because you never know when someone will try to talk about your book to a new reader and tell them the title and then they can’t find it so they can’t buy it.
With my YA fantasy series someone published a very popular biker romance book using the exact same title two years or so after I published my book. But it just didn’t make sense at that point to switch things out even though that other author’s title is always the top search result for my title now. Sometimes it is what it is.
For non-fiction I have definitely changed up titles and been pleased to do so. Writing for Beginners and Budgeting for Beginners both started out with much more complicated titles that didn’t connect with readers and sold better after their title change.
Just recently I changed another one. I had a title, Data Principles for Beginners, and it had sold some copies–more than I realized–but not many.
I still believed in the content but I decided that the title didn’t convey what the book covered. So I went for a more wordy and direct title.
It’s too early to see if it will help, but now that book is How to Gather and Use Data for Business Analysis. I also changed the cover. Better, I think, yeah?
The issue with changes to your title is that Amazon now requires that you publish the book as a new title. It used to be that you could change an ebook and not have to republish, but now they want both ebook and print to be republished as new titles.
So you start over when you do that. And risk confusing readers who had bought the prior title and didn’t know there was a title change and buy it again because of the new ASIN/ISBN.
It’s not something I’d recommend for a best-selling series. But for one that never quite caught on, it can make all the difference.
In summary, I think there are times when making any of the above changes can really move the needle. And since often writing the title is the biggest time commitment a simple blurb or cover tweak can be a way to earn a lot more money out of something you already created.
It is never too late to save something that didn’t sell well originally. That’s why advertising can be a boon, too.
Assuming, of course, that the project wasn’t just fatally flawed, which can be the case. Sometimes there is no real audience for something and no amount of changing things up will fix that. Or the audience range is 50-100 people and you’re trying to change things up to get to an audience of 1000 that doesn’t exist.
So you have to weigh changes like this against spending that time on creating something new using everything you’ve learned.
I tend to alternate between creating something new and then stopping and consolidating and making changes to my old material and then creating more new material, but it will really come down to personality what makes the most sense for you.
In general, I’d say make easy fixes and skip the big ones. If it’s six weeks of re-writes? Write something new instead.
Oh, and just because I hadn’t shared them yet, here are the other new covers I did last week. All of the books were already available except for Sell That Book which used to be Achieve Writing Success.
If nothing else I was able to learn some new tricks for image manipulation. It’s all about the incremental improvement.
If you had previously signed up for Affinity Publisher for Fiction Layouts, check your email because you should have received a special discount code. For anyone else interested in the classes, you can use MLH50 to get 50% off of any of the courses.
I will likely be putting these courses up on other stores at some point, too, but no promises as to when. I refuse to put up videos with automated closed captioning because, wow, the things that closed captioning thinks I’m saying….not even close to what I am actually saying. It does no one any good to have the screen saying something about Islamic militants when I was talking about master pages in Affinity.
(Although it really does make me wonder what closed captioning is trained on, the words it seems to default to.)
So anyway. There will be a bit of a delay there but the courses are on Teachable and I think pretty reasonably priced for what you get. Enjoy. (And let me know if you have any issues.)
I am that weird person who does not actually have a Twitter account but also reads Twitter daily via a series of bookmarks of people I like to follow on there. And today one of those people who I started following because they’re a nurse but also like to read because they’re a writer, had a good Twitter thread.
I’m going to link to it because it’s one of those emotionally raw threads the author may choose to delete later so I don’t want to create a permanent record of something they may not want to be permanent, but here it is: Cassie Alexander on a new release and writing and life
There are so many good parts to this thread it’s worth reading the whole thing starting around post seven.
I did take a screen cap of this part. (Which if she reaches out and asks me to delete I absolutely will.)
It is hard to be a writer. It takes a relentless sort of optimism to keep going at this thing. Because almost no one makes it right out of the gate. It is decades of effort to get somewhere that’s just the starting line.
And that’s really challenging to talk about. Because you have to be vulnerable and admit to not being as successful as you’d like to be. Or sometimes not being successful at all. And we live in a world that does not reward that vulnerability.
Fake it til you make it. You’re supposed to make things look absolutely effortless and fun and enjoyable as you sail into the sunset. But that’s really not the truth of it.
I enjoy every single day of my life right now. I enjoy the writing and the fiddling with design and the publishing books and even the advertising. But there are days when I have that dark moment of the soul.
Because how can it be that you can make good money just showing up and doing the job as X but you turn around and do something far more challenging that takes real dedication and effort and…don’t make money. Or not near as much money.
And I know that feeling she talks about of hoping but not hoping with that latest release. I mean, I just put out book eight of a cozy mystery series in December. I had to squash every single positive thought I might have about that book. Because it’s book eight.
It’s not going to take off and make my career. It will sell less copies than book seven. Or maybe as many copies. But not more. And being book eight that number of copies is way less than book one sold.
I just had to think of it as another brick in the wall of publication I’m building. It’s slow grinding work to stack that next one on there and not be able to see that everything is (hopefully) working to create something that’s bigger than the sum of its parts.
Part of my issue with the idea of publishing a new fantasy series is that whole, “maybe this will be the one” idea. Because I know it won’t. But I know I need to do it anyway to keep building this writing thing.
It’s hard not to hope and then be disappointed over and over again. But that’s the business.
I tell myself, “You can’t lose until you quit.” And the small wins do keep me going. There’s always some little glimmer of hope. But, man, some days…
First, I just did a bit of a reorder on the website. I had maintained separate pages for each major store (Amazon, Apple, Kobo, Nook, Google, etc.) where my books are sold, but that was a bit unwieldy to keep up to date and certain books were starting to get buried.
When you have as many books as I do, trying to figure out what order to present them in is probably the biggest challenge. Especially when most of my books here fall under one category (Microsoft Office) but I do have other titles that people come looking for.
So I got rid of the store-specific pages and you’ll now see at the top of the website links to products on Microsoft Office, Business and Personal Finance, and then Writing and Self-Publishing.
I labeled each one products because there are video courses and templates in addition to the books.
For each title the thumbnail now links to Books2Read and the comments section below includes store-specific links as well as the print ISBNs.
The resources pages I had that linked to other sites or blog posts, etc. are now on the side.
Second, for fellow authors, one of the things I did while I was doing this massive update (it took about a day) was to also add my print links on B2R for at least Amazon and Barnes & Noble since I was already there getting the ebook links. Something to consider doing if you haven’t already.
I’ll have to circle back and do some of the other print stores later and also do audio links but not sure when I’ll get around to it.
One of the trickiest challenges of self-publishing is knowing where to put your time. Last year I added a few new stores and honestly they were not worth doing from what I’ve seen so far. But sometimes they are, right?
Going direct to Kobo was when I finally started getting some traction there because of the promotions tab. And being direct at Nook when I finally was able to access their promo tab really helped the year that happened.
So it’s always worth considering these new things that pop up, but often the best thing to do is just write more.
Third, I read a good book for authors the other day, Romance Your Goals by Zoe York. It is not just for romance authors, by the way. Might be worth checking out. Just ignore the goal profiles section.
(There’s an implied hierarchy and judgement in a few of the profiles that raised my hackles. Could very much be a personal thing. But overall a good book.)
One of the things reading that book prompted me to do was map out the various titles I have under each pen name. (Covered in Chapter 7 of her book.)
And it was clear seeing that map why my non-fiction outperforms my fiction. Because on the non-fiction side I have multiple series that tie into one another or complement one another.
I do have some distinct little buckets–as you can see by my new categories for products at the top of the website–but overall there’s a wide variety of “product” to pull in customers that feeds into the larger pool of books.
Compare that to my YA fantasy that has one trilogy, my cozy mysteries that have one series with a few side short stories, my main romance name which has two related novels and an unrelated novella, and my secondary romance name that has one series of related short stories and then one other short story in the same subgenre.
Basically, it highlighted what many authors know but maybe don’t implement. Which is that you need a big enough catalog or related titles to really gain some traction.
(I sometimes joke that instead of building one home for myself I am concurrently building five of them, which means a bunch of unfinished projects sitting around that will all suddenly hit at once if I keep going that way.)
With enough books, advertising becomes easier. You can have a permafree title or enough series to run rotating discounted promotions. Also, getting books out there consistently keeps existing readers engaged and draws in new ones.
Which is all to say that doing things the way I have on the fiction side is not a winning strategy. Not if you want to make more than a few thousand in profit per year. On the fiction side I need to focus.
But that leads to my fourth thought which is about closing loops.
I am one of those people who holds mental space for the things I haven’t finished yet. It’s why consulting was annoying to me. Because if I had a client who consistently used my services, but didn’t use them full-time I was still holding space for that client on the days or weeks when they had no work for me.
I actually ended my last consulting relationship because a project had ended and I knew that I’d be getting fifteen minutes here, an hour there, requests until something new ramped up.
But I also knew that I’d be giving that client far more mental space than they were paying me for because I’d be checking my emails regularly (I had an internal email account with them) and staying on alert for when they needed me. I preferred to move on and free up that mental space rather than stay on board for a little bit of income here or there.
(Clearly, prioritizing income is not something I do well.)
But I realized thinking through my goals for this year and what I’ve done and have to do that I also hold space for series that are started but not completed. They percolate as an open loop in my head until I finish them.
What will I include? When will it fit into my schedule?
I will mentally write parts of the next book while walking my dog or trying to fall asleep at night. It’s like my to-do list is weighted down with all these things I haven’t yet finished even if they’re not on my schedule to be completed anytime soon.
Which is why I’ve decided my goal for the beginning of this year is to close some of those loops.
I have three series that are one book away from being closed, so even though they’re not what I wanted to focus on right now, writing those three books should theoretically free up a ton of mental space. (I hope.)
(And one will in a sense be that final cap on my old career. Like, here, I gave you everything I know about that. Bye now.)
Good news for my non-fiction readers is that means two more non-fiction titles will be released soon. And probably the remaining Affinity videos by April or so because that, too, is an open loop since I already did one video course for those books.
Of course, if I pull that off it puts me in a dangerous spot mentally.
Because I will have, at least as far as I’m concerned, fulfilled all my writing obligations to everyone. There won’t be any loose ends. (Yes, I have readers on the fiction side who would want more, but I’d have no open series where readers were left hanging. I could walk away without guilt.)
Which means if my best friend from forever ago comes to me in May and says, “Let’s start that packaged food business we joked about” I may well say, “Okay, let’s do it. Sounds fun.”
Because I also realized reading that book that my goals are not writing goals. There’s an exercise in there where you list what you want or don’t want from your writing, and it turns out I don’t want or care about awards, peer acknowledgement, celebrity, bestseller status, or having adoring fans.
I like self-publishing because it gives me complete control of my time and energy. And with the non-fiction at least it feels like I’m doing something meaningful that helps others. It’s also a good challenge where I can be perpetually learning something new.
So, yeah…I don’t actually need to be writing to be happy? Makes that whole five-year-plan thing a bit of a challenge.
Then again, that’s always been the case for me. My life was never certain enough that I thought five-year plans could be met. Of course, ironically, they could’ve if I’d set them.
But, for example, planning on having X person in your life five years from now so that the two of you can do Y is just not something my mind will let me do.
I had a terminally-ill parent who did live until I was eighteen but that was never guaranteed. I always had to have plan A, B, C, D, E…Z. And I never ever let myself put all my hopes on one outcome.
You never know when bad eyesight or someone more attractive or a global plague will make that thing you put all your hopes on impossible. Better to remain flexible.
I think we’ve now wandered into therapy territory, so I’m wrapping this up. Off to add print links for my cozies because they have a large print option on B2R and that’s just too exciting to pass up.
It is not cheating or gaming the system to advertise your books.
There are absolutely people out there who engage in shady practices with respect to advertising (I’m looking at you people who send fake clicks against books that use the keywords you want to use), but the mere act of using, for example, Facebook ads, does not make you some sort of cretin that can’t even be assigned a name because you’re such an insult to real authors whose books fly off the shelves all on their own.
I wouldn’t still be publishing if I hadn’t managed to get some sort of grasp on advertising. Because I wouldn’t have sold anything more than a handful of copies here or there and I would have quickly decided that there were better ways to spend the hours of my day than putting up my books that I’d spent hundreds of hours on and only hearing crickets.
Some people don’t need advertising. They write something that readers are actively looking for and where there isn’t enough competition to drown out their visibility. They started in trade-pub and have a pre-established audience that’s waiting for their next book. They have a lot of well-connected friends who like them enough to get the word out about their books. They hustle in some other way that gets them in front of readers.
But if you don’t fall into one of those categories, it is actually okay to learn AMS or FB ads and use them to promote your books. Do not let other people’s skewed perceptions make you fail.
This post triggered by a comment that may not have even been meant the way I read it, but also by the many, many times I’ve seen a forum discussion where the implication was that “real writers” don’t have to advertise.